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Nurse hospitalized after contact with smoke from illegal narcotics inside SF General Hospital

Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital | Getty Images

A nurse was hospitalized earlier this month after coming into contact with smoke from narcotics that people were using inside of Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital, according to front-line staff who spoke to The Standard. 

The incident has escalated concerns among nursing staff who say they are laboring under increasingly dangerous conditions due to drug use inside the city’s main publicly funded hospital.

Hospital staff who spoke to The Standard said that the nurse displayed symptoms resembling a panic attack and fainted. Experts say that while contracting a secondhand high is unlikely, people can experience stress when they are exposed to dangerous drugs such as fentanyl or methamphetamine.  

The incident highlights the intense pressure hospital staff face amid an escalating addiction crisis, according to Geoffrey Grier, a recovery activist who advises on behavioral health policy

“Nurses are underpaid and overworked,” Grier said. “It’s part of a larger picture.”

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Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital | Justin Katigbak for The Standard | Source: Justin Katigbak for The Standard

Hospital staffers who talked to The Standard said that the incident underscores the dangers of their workplace as a citywide drug crisis increasingly spills over into the city’s hospitals and emergency rooms. It also poses difficult questions about how to provide compassionate care for people suffering from addiction while protecting the hospital’s workers. 

A source with knowledge of the incident said that the nurse was transported to the emergency room and then admitted to the hospital after they walked in on a person who was incapacitated in a room full of drug smoke. 

The Standard earlier reported that, due to ambiguous protocols around patients who arrive at the hospital with narcotics, staffers have increasingly encountered patients using drugs inside the facility.

Asked about reports of nurses having adverse reactions to drug smoke while on the job, SF General Hospital confirmed that it had reported one incident to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration but declined to provide details, citing patient confidentiality.

An internal email obtained by The Standard acknowledged “recent issues” related to a “hospital-wide epidemic of complex substance use.” 

The email, sent by a nursing supervisor to hospital staff, said that staff created a task force to address the issue of drug use in the hospital, which met for the first time on March 17. Nurses are urged to leave the area and wear N95 masks, gloves and other protective equipment when encountering “exposure to a toxic or irritating material or substance of any kind,” according to the email.  

“I think that we should definitely be able to meet people where they're at and give them the help that they can get,” said a nurse at General Hospital, who didn’t want to be named for fear of retaliation. “But there’s been so much finger-pointing at the nurses, and we’re all tired of it.”

The hospital’s administration has asserted that drug use isn’t tolerated on the facility’s premises, saying in a statement that the facility is a “substance-use free zone,” and that it has a rigorous program in place to respond to safety and security concerns. 

But nurses have said that while drug use may ostensibly not be allowed, there are no clear protocols in place to actually enforce the policy: Patients are “offered the option to dispose of any substances or substance-use supplies,” according to the hospital, but staffers don’t have the authority to search patients or confiscate their property. Nurses have described incidents of patients using drugs inside hospital rooms. 

The Standard viewed an internal document on how to handle drug use in the hospital, which instructs nurses to limit enforcement interventions in order to prioritize treatment for people suffering from addiction. Only if the patient’s drug use presents harm to themselves or others are hospital staff instructed to involve law enforcement.  

In a statement, SF General Hospital said that it’s looking to revise its current policies and implement clinical interventions in response to a growing number of patients with addiction.  

But some nurses have their doubts about whether the hospital’s administration is serious about finding a solution.

“They weren’t going to change anything until people started really speaking up,” a nurse said. “They are trying to say that it shouldn't be this stressful.”